The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett

This incredible novel spans from the 1950s to the 1990s, exploring issues of race, sexuality, identity and the controversial topic of passing. The book centres around the small fictional town of Mallard in Louisiana where the citizens are African Americans are light-skinned and ‘refuse to be treated like negroes.’ This is the town where identical twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes, are born and the town that they run away from when they are 16 years old. Cut to 15 years later and Desiree returns to Mallard with a dark-skinned daughter in tow and hasn’t seen or heard of Stella in almost as long, ever since Stella left without a word and started living her life as a white woman.

The best part of this novel is the pacing and natural change between characters. The pacing perfectly balances pushing forward the narrative and always leaving you wanting more. The interplay of character perspectives afford you the opportunity to empathise with and relate to each of the characters in a unique way because you gain genuine insight into their life and how they’ve ended up the position they have. This is particularly important when it comes to Stella’s story. When we are introduced to Stella she is living in as a white woman in a a gated community that is facing the prospect of an African American couple moving into one of the houses. And Stella is the loudest protester of this.

Bennet’s exploration of Stella’s complicated emotions around race and the decisions she’s made in order to pass as white and benefit off her caucasian features. For Stella, being white offers the indisputable opportunity to have a better life; an oppotunity she can’t say no to as a fragile 16 year old forced to drop out of school to clean houses. However, we meet a version of Stella that lives in fear of being found out, desperately trying to keep her secrets and distancing herself from everyone around her as a result.

Bennet has written a beautiful story exploring the complexity of racism and the value of lightness among African Americans which brings together a fascinating plot and charming language in a truly incredible novel. This book asks many questions of identity; what it means feel part of a community, what it takes to distance yourself from where you came from and whether that’s even possible.

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